“Excuse me, sir, excuse me…” a short round man with a bald scalp surrounded by wispy standards of white hair knocked his cane against the Barley Mow’s front desk.
Inn owner Quimby Plummer looked up and held up a finger. “I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
Quimby was interviewing a new server. The inn had high turnover. Few people came to a medieval world with the intention of bussing tables and cleaning up vomit and dead bodies. Now, if he was recruiting for a big, showy battle, he’d have no shortage of applicants.
“I’m just looking for Ellison Davo. I heard his office is here.”
Quimby sighed and pointed to Ellison’s table. “He’s the guy who looks like a noob assassin.”
The visitor nodded his thanks, put his top hat back on his head, and, cane in hand, proceeded through the inn’s dining room. Ellison’s table was at the far back, by the window. Ellison sat with his back to the far wall, so he could simultaneously keep an eye on the street outside and on the inn’s front door. He never knew when someone would be coming by to kill him.
The visitor took off his top hat again as he approached Ellison’s table. “May I?” He gestured at the chair across from the detective.
Ellison nodded. The newcomer put down his cane and hat and sat down.
“I’m Nathaniell Throkmorton,” he said. “The owner of McGuire’s Big Top Triumph.”
“The circus?” asked Ellison. He picked up his copy of the newspaper and flipped through. “You’re in town for a week, right? At the south gate?”
“I heard you’re a detective,” said Throkmorton.
“That’s right. I’m the best detective on Krim.”
“I heard you’re the only detective on Krim.”
“That’s the same thing,” said Ellison. “What can I help you with?”
“We had a pair of tigers escape during the show today…”
“And you want me to find them? That’s not usually my line of work, but I can ask around…”
“No, I’ve already got lots of people out looking for them — if they haven’t already been turned into rugs. What I’m more concerned about is that the cage looks like it was tampered with. The tigers went crazy right in the middle of a performance, mauled our tiger tamer, broke out of their cage, terrorized the audience… I think that the tigers, and the cage, were interfered with.”
Throkmorton nodded. “There were signs that someone tried to repair the cage. Maybe they were covering their tracks. As to the tigers, maybe poison, or something physical — like needles in their paws. We’ll probably never know. Someone also emptied out two grain sacks. Scattered the grain everywhere and the oxen trampled it.”
“Could it have been random vandals? Krim is full of alcoholics with poor impulse control.”
“We had guards at all the exits,” said Throkmorton. “We hire the Armforge Guild when we’re in town.”
“Well, there’s your problem then,” said Ellison. “They’re all trapped behind enemy lines right now. I don’t know if you heard, but they’ve had a little run-in with the Cult of Qualdir.”
“Well, I guess not everyone was trapped,” said Throkmorton. “We had four guards there today. Nobody came in or out of the animal tents. We also have fencing up around them and nothing was tampered with. I’m worried it was an inside job.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
Throkmorton reached into his inside vest pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “This is a list of everyone who works for me and had access to the animal areas. I’ve underlined the people who I think might be unhappy with the circus. I want you to find out if one of them is responsible for this. And talk to the guards. Maybe there’s something I’m missing and someone got past the guards after all.”
“Why is this important to you? You don’t seem too be too concerned about getting the tigers back.”
“I am concerned about getting the tigers back. It was very difficult — expensive — for us to get them. I’ve got everyone out looking for them, including the Armforge Guild. I just don’t have high hopes of retrieving them. Meanwhile, I’ve got other animals to worry about. We have an elephant, for example. And then there are safety issues. If someone in our community is determined to cause harm, there’s a lot they can do. I want to put a stop to things before they escalate. Before we go back out on the road. If they’re capable of this, what else are they capable of?”
“Sounds straightforward enough,” said Ellison.
“We’re going to spent months in the middle of nowhere,” said Throkmorton. “If someone dies, they get sent right back here to Krim City and have to make their way back out to wherever we are, so we’re very concerned about safety. But there’s only so much you can do when it’s someone you trust who’s stabbing you in the back.”
“Well, I have another case I’m working on now…”
“You’ve got a week before we leave,” said Throkmorton. “Make this your top priority. This circus is my dream. My baby. I don’t want this cancer eating away the heart of it.”
He dropped a sack of coins on the table. “Consider this a down payment. Do whatever you have to do.” He stood up, put on his top hat and picked up his cane. “I’ll tell everyone that you’re looking for a clever intruder and tell him to tell you everything, no matter how insignificant it might seem. If you can run background checks, I’ll appreciate it as well. I don’t normally like to violate people’s privacy but I’m going to make an exception in this case. I hear that this is something you’re good at.” He tipped his hat. “Good day, sir.”
Ellison peeked into the bag. He’d never been paid in a sack of coins before. With this retainer, he could pay for an army of informants. Or rent real office space.
He tied off the bag and tucked it into one of his many inside pockets. The nice thing about the assassin outfit was that it was extremely practical for carrying things. He was about to pick up the newspaper and go back to his reading when he saw someone else approaching his table — Pleasance Pratt, the on-site Royal Season coordinator. He stood up and motioned to the other chair.
“No time to sit down,” she said.
“I take it you’re looking for an update? I’ve got a team watching…”
“No, this is something else,” she said. “Two of our participants have disappeared.” She sat down. “Vanished, right into thin air.”
“That happens on Krim,” said Ellison. “That’s why people come here in the first place.”
“I’m worried because the same thing happened before,” she said. “Three years ago, we brought our couples here for a day trip. You know, the usual — visit a scary world, get their adrenalin pumping, great bonding opportunity. And one of the participants just wandered away and never came back. At first, we weren’t too worried. People do drop out sometimes and don’t tell us. And he left a note with his family not to bother him, that he wanted to take some time off.”
“Maybe that’s what happened,” said Ellison.
“Maybe. But this afternoon, I went out through the gate and checked up on him. He’s never reappeared. I contacted his family. They did a health and safety check. He’s alive and healthy. Somewhere. So the authorities won’t do anything. Plus, there was the note and the man did clear his entire schedule. But it’s been three years. If he needed some time to clear his head, that’s still a long time to go no contact. Completely out of character, too.”
Ellison shrugged. “Trust me, it happens.”
“Well, I want to be sure. I understand that you’re very good at finding people.”
“It’s been three years. Krim is a big place. He could be anywhere.”
“But the two who disappeared today should still be close,” said Pleasance. “If they left on their own, that’s fine. But if there was some foul play involved, I want you to find out and stop it.”
“I was going to take a shift watching the newspaper tonight, but I can delegate that to someone else…”
“Do that,” she said. “And Mr. Crewe has contacted us about doing some additional background checks. I’ll be authorizing that, as well. Money is literally no object here. A little gossip in the local paper is one thing. That’s just a minor annoyance. But if there’s something untoward happening with our customers, I want to know. We need to get ahead of it. And we need to put a stop to it right away.”
“So you’re fine with me interviewing your staff?”
“Yes. Please do that. If these disappearances are connected, and someone on my staff is involved, then they’re escalating.”
” There’s only so much you can do when it’s someone you trust who’s stabbing you in the back,” Ellison said.
“Exactly! You understand perfectly.”
“And if they’re capable of this, then who knows what else they’re up to.”
“I’m glad you see it. I see I’ve come to the right man.”
“I’ve got some personal legal history with Elea Carlyle,” Ellison added.
Pleasance waved him off. “No matter. She’s just a sponsor. We always try to have local sponsors on every world where we set up for the season. She’s already paid in full. If she gets offended, her payment is non-refundable. We might lose her as a sponsor in future years, but that’s not a concern here. Do whatever you have to do.”
“I might need to hire additional staff…”
“Do it. Do whatever you have to do. And do it fast. Wynefrede Aumberden and Raphe Faryndon are two of our highest-profile customers this season. Crewe Investigations has the full background reports on both of them.”
“What happened, exactly?”
“Well, it was in the middle of the circus…”